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Anthropologists Writing About Copts In Postrevolutionary Egypt

August 31, 2012

A tower at St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, Egypt. This is possibly the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world.

“Twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, Pope Shenouda comes out on state television and assures everybody that Christians and Muslims are all one cloth,” a Coptic student wrote in an essay in my social theory class at the American University in Cairo more than a decade ago.

The essay was on the concepts of latent and manifest in social theory. The notion that we are all one, all Egyptian, and that the only difference is one of faith, was the “manifest transcript,” the narrative that was allowed to be said in the public sphere. But there are hidden transcripts that can be said only within families or small circles of friends: “Yes, our Muslim neighbors are good people. But when it comes right down to it, you can’t completely trust them.” Across the street, Muslim parents are telling their children the same thing.

With the revolution, many of these traditions about what can and cannot be said are changing. Simultaneously, the differences between Copts and Muslims, and the place of Copts as minorities in the new Egypt, are matters of serious and significant debate.

So it is interesting to read what anthropologists have been writing about Egyptian Christianity over the past year. Here is a brief survey of eight recently published works on Coptic Christians in Egypt.

An article entitled “Coptic Christian practices: formations of sameness and difference” by Lisa Paulsen Galal of Roskilde University in Denmark that appeared in the journal Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations seems to hit many of the same points my student did, although she ends hopefully. Here’s the abstract:

Phrases such as ‘the only difference is one of faith’ construct Copts and Muslims in Egypt as, although different, mainly the same as each other. Similar constructions of sameness are also dominant in historical and current Egyptian narratives on national unity. However, as a result of the privileging of sameness and the underplaying of differences, the interaction between narratives of sameness and difference has been left unexplored and partly ignored, not only by national movements, but also by research. Thus, the main issue examined in this article is how current Orthodox Christian practices in Egypt take shape under the influence of hegemonic narratives of sameness and difference. Supported by data collected from ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Egypt, the argument is that the Copts, by positioning themselves as Christians in specific locations and situations, are mediating the antithetical potentialities of being the same as or different from the national Muslim majority. In other words, Christianity not only makes a difference as a sign of the Copts’ minority position, but also simultaneously offers Copts a way out of their marginal position as a minority.

Anthony Shenoda of Leiden University College in The Hague, has written two pieces on the politics of being Christian in post-revolutionary Egypt. The first “Reflections on the (In)Visibility of Copts in Egypt” appeared in the on-line journal/blog/web resource Jadaliyya. It begins:

I’ve been thinking lately about the circumstances under which Coptic Christians emerge on the Egyptian socio-political landscape. Those circumstances tend to be, in a word, ugly. Copts become a visible religious community when they are attacked. And then Westerners in particular wonder: “Who are the Copts?” (I should also point out, however, that although well aware of the existence of Copts, or al-aqbat in Arabic, most Egyptian Muslims are equally unfamiliar with Coptic religiosity.) This strange play between visibility and invisibility is the problematic that I take up here, arguing that what is desirable for Copts in a new Egypt is a visibility that takes seriously their religiosity. I do so by drawing on ethnographic fieldwork I have been doing among Copts and reflecting on recent events in Egypt.

A second essay by Shenoda, entitled ”Public Christianity in a Revolutionary Egypt” appeared in one of the journal Cultural Anthropology‘s on-line “hot spots”  in February 2012. The essay begins:

Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt make up roughly 10% of the Egyptian population. This brief essay concerns the ways in which they publicly confess their Christianity, the potential hazards of such confessions, and what I think such confessions communicate, and to whom. I focus on the Maspero Massacre, of October 9, 2011, when mostly Coptic protestors in front of the Maspero state television building in Cairo were mowed down by army Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) and bullets. Twenty-eight civilians were killed that day.

UC-Berkeley associate professor Saba Mahmood, one of the most influential anthropologists of religion today, has recently been writing about sectarianism. One paper, Sectarian conflict and family law in contemporary Egypt, was published in American Ethnologist. It’s abstract states:

Egypt continues to experience interreligious sectarian conflict between Muslims and Copts since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. The same factors that had contributed to escalating violence between the two communities continue to be at play in postrevolutionary Egypt. One of the key sites of sectarian conflict is interreligious marriage and conversion, an issue that ignites the passion and ire of both communities. While issues of sexuality and gender are at the center of these conflicts, religion-based family law plays a particularly pernicious role. In this essay, I rethink the nexus between family law, gender, and sectarian conflict through an examination of both the history of the emergence of Egyptian family law and the simultaneous relegation of religion and sexuality to the private sphere in the modern period.

In her essay “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East” published in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Mahmoud departs from her usual fine-grained ethnographic work to ask more sweeping questions about power, identity and freedom. Her first paragraph reads:

The right to religious freedom is widely regarded as a crowning achievement of secular-liberal democracies, one that guarantees the peaceful coexistence of religiously diverse populations. Enshrined in national constitutions and international laws and treaties, the right to religious liberty promises to ensure two stable goods: (1) the ability to choose one’s religion freely without coercion by the state, church, or other institutions; and (2) the creation of a polity in which one’s economic, civil, legal, or political status is unaffected by one’s religious beliefs. While all members of a polity are supposed to be protected by this right, modern wisdom has it that religious minorities are its greatest beneficiaries and their ability to practice their traditions without fear of discrimination is a critical marker of a tolerant and civilized polity. The right to religious freedom marks an important distinction between liberal secularism and the kind practiced in authoritarian states (such as China, Syria, or the former Soviet Union): while the latter abide by the separation of religion and state (a central principle of political secularism), they also regularly abrogate religious freedoms of their minority and majority populations. Despite claims to religious neutrality, liberal secular states frequently regulate religious affairs but they do so in accord with a strong concern for protecting the individual’s right to practice his or her religion freely, without coercion or state intervention.

In the same issue of Comparative Studies in Society and History, Angie Heo of the Max Planck Institute uses accounts of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to explore Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt, and to examine the ways sectarianism is generated in her paper “The Virgin Made Visible: Intercessory Images of Church Territory in Egypt.” The first paragraph:

In the dark midnight hours of 11 December 2009, the Virgin Mary (al-‘adhra) burst into visibility against the skyline of al-Warraq, a working-class district on the neglected peripheries of Giza, Egypt. Hovering within a glowing triad of crosses, the apparition attracted spectators to the Church of the Virgin and the Archangel Michael along the main thoroughfare, Nile Street, even in the inconvenient hours between dusk and dawn. Within days, the Virgin was being discussed far and wide by Christians and Muslims, Egyptians and foreigners, skeptics and believers. Reactions were diverse: A journalist announced to his friends, “Even if the Virgin appeared before my very eyes, I would deny her.” A cab driver explained, “It is a trick, a big laser show in the sky.” A young mother urged, “Why [forbid oneself] the joy that the Virgin brings?”

Another recent work on apparitions of Mary in Egypt appears as Chapter Nine in Dionigi Albera and Maria Couroucli’s edited volume Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries (2012, Indiana University Press).

Entitled  “Apparitions of the Virgin in Egypt: Improving Relations between Copts and Muslims?” the chapter by Sandrine Keriakos describes Marian apparitions throughout history and the ways they’ve been appropriated and used by members of both communites to both bring Muslims and Christians together, and to pull them apart.

The chapter that precedes Keriakos’s is on moulids, and offers a pretty pessimistic description of the way things are going.  In the chapter, entitled “What Do Egypt’s Copts and Muslims Share? The Issue of Shrines” author Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen begins:

Egypt is now one of the Middle Eastern countries where the interconfessional situation is most tense, and where the discourse of the other (Muslim or Christian) is most aggressive.

She writes of a past of shared saints and holy men, and common participation in the peculiarly Egyptian religious ceremonies around shrines known as moulids. But today, she writes: “The days when half the crowds that flocked to Coptic moulids were Muslim are long gone. Neither Copts nor Muslims want to mix. (p. 169). Islamist leaders come in for much criticism for their efforts to suppress interfaith practices and “purify” Islam, but the fault is not entirely that of the Muslims. Mayeur-Jaouen writes:

The reform of the Coptic moulids also represents, finally, an attempt on the part of the Copts to be more reformist than the Muslims. Shenouda’s version of the Coptic revival is just as fundamentalist as the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood (p. 168)

The current story of the Copts in post-revolutionary Egypt has also been marked by the death of Pope Shenouda–a man mourned for the deep and abiding love of his people but also criticized for his many compromises with the regime–and the rise of new organizations of Copts asserting political identity and agency as citizens outside the hierarchy of the Church. It is a time of extraordinary flux and associated risk and much more is yet to be written by these and other scholars.

[I am indebted to my colleague here at Miami James Bielo and his blog tracking recent publications in the anthropology of Christianity (co-authored with UCSD anthropologist Jon Bialecki) anthrocybib for allowing me to track down all these publications]


Albera, Dionigi and Maria Couroucli, eds. 2012. Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Galal, Lise Paulsen. 2012. Coptic Christian practices: formations of sameness and difference. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. 23(1):45-58.

Heo, Angie. 2012. The Virgin Made Visible: Intercessory Images of Church Territory in Egypt. Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(2):361-391.

Keriakos, Sandrine. 2012. Apparitions of the Virgin in Egypt: Improving Relations between Copts and Muslims? In Dionigi Albera and Maria Couroucli, eds. Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries. Pp. 174-201.Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mahmood, Saba. 2012. Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(2):418-446.

Mahmood, Saba. 2012. Sectarian conflict and family law in contemporary Egypt American Ethnologist 39(1): 54–62.

Mayeur-Jaouen, Catherine. 2012. “What Do Egypt’s Copts and Muslims Share? The Issue of Shrines” In Dionigi Albera and Maria Couroucli, eds. Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries. Pp. 148-173.Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Shenoda, Anthony. 2012. ”Public Christianity in a Revolutionary Egypt” Hot Spots: Revolution and Counter-Revoltuion in Egypt. Cultural Anthropology. 4 February. <;

Shenoda, Anthony. 2011. ” Reflections on the (In)Visibility of Copts in Egypt. Jadaliyya May 18. <;

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